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Elisha Otis (1811-1861)

The Elevator

If you've ever been atop the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower or any of the world's great skyscrapers, you may have been in awe at the technological prowess that went into making our finest cityscapes.

Many people marvel at architects' abilities to design buildings that stretch toward the sky, but few realize that without one man's invention, generations would never have dreamed of building these great landmarks.

Elisha Otis was born in Halifax, Vermont. As an adult, he was inspired to design what was then called the "safety elevator" when he was asked to move equipment into the warehouse of his employer, a New York bed factory. Most elevators of the time were extremely dangerous. Otis' employer needed an elevator that could carry people and equipment safely to the upper floors of its new building.

At the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York in 1853, Otis demonstrated his solution. A large crowd watched breathlessly from the floor far below as Otis ascended in his new elevator. Stopping at a dizzying height, Otis told his assistant to cut the elevator's cord!

The crowd let out a gasp of relief when the elevator platform did not come crashing to the floor. The key to Otis' invention was a toothed guiderail located on each side of the elevator shaft that caught the elevator car. If the cable failed, the teeth would engage, locking the car in place.

So the next time you ride an elevator, take a look around -- there's a good chance you'll spot the "Otis" name.

[June 1996]

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